Thinking Out Loud

May 12, 2017

Apologetics: The Case for Making the Case

Probably the most disturbing thing about the newest title from J. Warner Wallace, Forensic Faith: A Homicide Detective Makes the Case for a More Reasonable, Evidential Christian Faith (David C. Cook) came in the preface where he noted that this is “the final installment in a trilogy.” Say it isn’t so!

Since arriving on the scene in 2013 with Cold Case Christianity and then 2015’s God’s Crime Scene, Wallace has rocked the world of evidential apologetics by applying his background as a cold case crime-solver to the issues of the death and resurrection of Christ and intelligent design respectively. (I recently combined both of my reviews into one at this link.)

Some might say that this book is guilty of repeating much material from the previous two volumes. Instead, I would argue that this is more like the director’s cut providing background information for hardcore followers. That said, I would suggest that you want to read Cold Case Christianity first to get maximum benefit from the new title.

The book is organized into four main chapters, each containing five sub-points. I found the first and fourth sections especially helpful. The first tracks a history of those who contended for the faith — a history of apologetics — starting with Christ himself, then The Commissioned, then the group he calls The Canonical, next The Continuing and last The Contemporary. (see illustration below)

The fourth section compares the way in which we communicate our message to the prosecutor in a trial. Opening statements, presentation of evidence and closing statements are important, but so is the selection of our audience — jurors in the analogy — and this is an area where we often expend much energy trying to convert those who are simply not prepared to hear what we have to offer.

But the best insights from the book are encountered along the reading journey, and these will probably be different for each reader. Example: Ever heard someone suggest that the Jesus narrative is a copy of earlier mythology? I have. But Wallace points out that the similarities between Jesus and Mithras, an ancient Persian mythological figure were “actually due to the borrowing on the part of Mithraic followers after they were exposed to Christianity.” (p. 90) (see video below)

He again in this books speaks of cumulative evidence, but later in the book suggests something different, “incremental decision making” on the part of the not-yet converted. He compares this to baseball; the idea is that we don’t necessarily know which base (1st, 2nd, 3rd) the person is standing on. We don’t have to hit a home run; if the person is standing on 3rd, we can hit a single and that might be enough to bring the person to home plate. (p. 197)

The groundwork for this book, and the thing I believe distinguishes it from the other two titles, is laid early on when he suggests that many are what he calls “California Christians.” We’re in the right place, but “accidentally” so. “Now, more than ever, Christians must shift from accidental belief to evidential trust. It’s time to know why you believe what you believe. Christians must embrace a forensic faith.” (p. 23)

The real high point for me however was a smaller section in the third chapter. Wallace quotes from ancient authors who were actually antagonistic toward Christians and Christianity. But in each of these there are little kernels of historical information about Jesus himself. After several pages of this, he finally combines all of these into a single summary paragraph that tells the Jesus story using the words of writers hostile to Christianity noting that it’s “a lot of information from ancient non-Christian sources, and it happens to agree with what the Bible says about Jesus.” (pp 136-7)

I could go on. There is much here, both in the text, the boxed sidebars and the two appendices. Also, in case you are wondering, Wallace also comes through with his signature diagrams.

As with the first two books, this is one that needs to be kept close by to refer to often.

Note: This time around there is also an 8-week, DVD-driven curriculum kit available with participant guides. 

For more information on J. Warner Wallace visit ColdCaseChristianity.com


A review copy of Forensic Faith was provided to Thinking Out Loud by David C. Cook Publishing. All three books are in paperback at $18.99 US retail each.

April 16, 2015

Going Off Course

Filed under: cults — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:30 am

img 041615Yesterday I was looking at a bit of the history of the Children of God cult, also known as The Family. I’m not including a link here because parts of the story simply are not edifying. Like many Made-in-America cults (and some in Western Europe) the thing that is often highlighted is a very liberal view of appropriate sexual behavior.

Sometimes these organizations begin around the distinctive doctrines of a very small-c, charismatic leader. But other times there is a drift away from Christian orthodoxy that happens bit by bit, year over year. (It’s also possible for an organization that has drifted to have a reformation and return to orthodoxy, as happened with the core membership of The Worldwide Church of God.)

Here’s an analogy. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If I decide to visit my neighbor across the road and two houses down, and I line myself up from my front door to his front door, and I am in fact 5% off, I will still make it to his door. Five percent isn’t much when you’re only taking about a hundred steps. But if I am a rocket scientist, aiming toward the Moon, and I am out even 1% on my calculations, I could easily be wrong as to where the Moon is going to be on the day I need to begin orbit.

So it could be argued that some organizations move, over time, into false cult status. The adjective false before cult was common in previous generations because, by definition, any separated group could be considered a cult; today the word has shifted and the false — plus the implications of wrong teaching, authoritarian leaders, separation from society, etc. — is assumed. Did they start out 1% or 5% off course or did something happen that bent the straight line they were on? It’s interesting that a tendency, disposition or inclination is called a “bent.”

Christian bloggers and watchdog ministries are very quick to point out the perceived error of everyone else (but themselves) but we don’t have many mechanisms in The Church that would be considered preventative. You don’t know someone is sick until they exhibit symptoms, but maybe we should have a ‘blood test’ that would tell us if someone is going off the rails.

However, it can also be argued that bank tellers know how to recognize authentic currency not by looking at counterfeit bills, but carefully studying real ones. Spending time immersed in the weekend teaching and mid-week Bible studies connected to mainstream Christian churches is sufficient to keep us all on the right path.

January 6, 2014

We Track a Story People Were Willing to Die For

Crucifixion of St. Peter (Wikipedia Commons) Click image for link

Crucifixion of St. Peter (Wikipedia Commons) Click image for link

This appeared back in August — that’s forever ago in blog years — at Nailing It To The Door, a blog by Dan Martin. It was the eighth in a series of posts titled, Why I Believe; this one being The Testimony of Witnesses. To read this at source and then navigate to find the other parts, click this link.

There is no question in my mind that one of the most compelling reasons to believe specifically the accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings is the testimony of those who were there.  This is, I’m quite sure, a problematic claim for those who object to faith; I’ve encountered many rants on the unreliability of the gospel accounts, though I find that the same people who protest about the unreliability of the gospels tend to be far more credulous when looking at any other ancient written histories.  But there are two particular things about the Apostles and other first-century Christians that I find highly compelling.

The first is specific to the Evangelists who wrote the four canonical gospels (and I really do mean the canonical ones; I’ve read a number of the others and they differ so much in character that the judgment of the councils in rejecting them seems to me quite sound).  C.S. Lewis probably said it best in his 1959 lecture “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism:”

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one [of the stories in the Gospel of John, for example] is like this… Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” (see the full essay here; quote on p. 155)

Put perhaps a little more simply, the gospels just don’t look like anybody else’s idea of what mythical or divine characters ought to be, do, or say.  Weird and off-center as they might seem now, they were even weirder and less-probable in the time they were written.  Things only turn out that oddly if they’re either real (truth really is stranger than fiction) or very creatively written.

But even more compelling to me is the fact that the authors and their other compatriots were willing to die for the truth of what they had written or said.  And die they did, in some pretty horrible ways.  According to tradition and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563):

  • Philip was crucified
  • Matthew was “slain with a halberd”
  • James the brother of Jesus was beaten, stoned, and clubbed to death
  • Matthias (elected to replace Judas) was stoned and beheaded
  • Andrew was crucified
  • Mark was “dragged to pieces”
  • Peter was crucified upside-down
  • Paul was beheaded
  • Jude was crucified
  • Bartholomew was beaten and then crucified
  • Thomas was speared
  • Simon the Zealot was crucified
  • John was “cast into a cauldron of boiling oil,” survived, and was later exiled to the island of Patmos; “He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.”
  • Barnabas is said to be martyred, though the means of his death is not reported.

These guys, unlike later generations of Christians killed by the thousands under various rulers, knew exactly what they were dying for.  They claimed to have seen and heard it themselves.  If they were faking it, they sure were willing to take their deception to a really crazy, extreme end.

I’m not saying that death alone testifies to truth.  Many hundreds and thousands have died for falsehoods throughout history … I think of the infamous Jonestown mass suicide in the 70s … but the difference, at least as I see it, is that these people were deluded by a charismatic leader who ordered them to their deaths.  Jesus did no such thing, and in fact he was already dead and gone (if we presume fakery) or dead and raised (if we accept the Gospels) before any of the apostles faced their deaths.  These men went willingly to gruesome deaths because they couldn’t recant the truth of what they’d spent their lives teaching.

There are, of course, many more martyrs since the first century.  While I have no desire to diminish their testimony, it seems to me that it’s of a different category.  Except for however they may have experienced the Holy Spirit in their own lives, the thing for which they died was removed from them in that they no longer could testify to having seen Jesus with their eyes, heard his teachings from his very lips with their own ears, and even sat and broken bread with him.  No one, however intense their experience, has had the same level of personal, experiential linkage to Jesus Christ that those first-century apostles had.  And when they were invited to either confess to their lie or die in pain, they insisted it was no lie and accepted the consequences.  Two millenia later, that testimony remains, to me, difficult to refute.

September 16, 2013

Destroying the Idol of Absolute Certainty

…each one of us needs to be developing a personal, systematic theology so that we can respond when asked what we believe. We should know the ways of God; truly know what Jesus would do. But we should write our theology in pencil, not pen; remaining open to the possibility that what we see as through frosted glass will become clearer over time and therefore subject to change…

– me, Thinking Out Loud, 2/24/13

There are going to be those, on seeing this is a review of a Greg Boyd book, who will immediately dismiss everything that follows. While perhaps not as high on the controversy scale as Rob Bell, Boyd’s writings, sermons, and YouTube videos posted on his blog often reference the radical pacifism of his Anabaptist leanings; his belief that the American Church should be apolitical, not seen to be supporting candidates of either major party; and his teaching of ‘open theology,’ which offers the idea that for any given persons or group, the future could contain a range of possible outcomes among which God has not committed himself to knowing the final choice in advance.

Benefit of the Doubt - Greg BoydWith his newest book, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker Books), Gregory Boyd presents the thesis that far too many Christians — at least in North America and western Europe — are committed to a set of spiritual propositions more than they are committed to Christ; and that in fact the thing they worship and place their faith in are these ‘certainties,’ far more than they worship and have their faith secured in “Christ, and Him crucified.”

At this point, I want to step out and say that I while I believe this book has great potential for both seekers and skeptics, this is must-reading for every seasoned or veteran Christ-follower. Furthermore, I want also step out and, to use a cliché, that if the Lord tarries, I think Greg Boyd will be remembered as one of the great thinkers of our generation, even if he is not heretofore accorded such honor.

While the book clearly intends to shatter the idol of theological over-confidence, its equal purpose is to give some peace and comfort to people who, although they are long on the journey with Jesus, still don’t feel they have all the details of the contract worked out. He is writing to those of us who perhaps know people for whom all doctrinal and theological matters are settled once and for all, while we ourselves, as in the above quotation from a previous column here, feel our theological understanding is better jotted down in pencil rather than indelible ink and therefore feel our relationship with God is somewhat lacking.  He writes,

Think about it. If I was confident that God unconditionally loves me because of what he did for me on Calvary, then wouldn’t I be confident that his love for me does not increase or decrease based on how accurate or inaccurate my other beliefs are? So too, if I was confident God ascribes unsurpassable worth to me on the basis of Calvary, then wouldn’t I be confident that my worth can’t be increased because I hold correct beliefs and can’t be decreased because I hold mistaken beliefs? These questions answer themselves.

Unlike other books I review here, the chapters of Benefit of the Doubt must be considered sequentially, not only for the progression of thought the book entails, but also because of the many autobiographical sections that are introduced then later referenced. This book is Greg Boyd at his most personal, most transparent; even as he writes of weightier things.

While Boyd admits in a couple of places that he tends overall to lean to the conservative position on many doctrinal issues; and that he believes in the inspiration of scripture and even a version of inerrency; the book will resonate with people who wrestle with many of the more difficult parts of the Bible, or those who are stuck in a place overshadowed by past unanswered prayers. He gets into this in describing an upcoming conference based on the book:

There are those who might falsely infer that with a title such as this, the pastor of Minneapolis megachurch Woodland Hills is slowly moving away from orthodoxy. Based on my reading, I would say with deep conviction, don’t think that for a minute. This is a book about the value of doubt; a book that espouses the concept that perhaps in an atmosphere of doctrinal fragility, our ultimate faith in Christ is perhaps stronger, more enriched, and more able to withstand the realities of life. As the publisher blurb suggestions, “Let your questions lead you to a stronger faith.”

November 13, 2012

The Shack’s Paul Young Returns with Cross Roads

The original distribution target for The Shack was about 15 copies. So it’s not surprising that million-copy-selling author Paul Young refers to Cross Roads as the first novel he intentionally wrote.

While The Shack took Paul Young into some places that other Christian novels would never reach and started all manner of conversations, the fact remains that the response from some Evangelicals and the Reformed community in particular was less than enthusiastic. I would like to say that Cross Roads clears up all the misconceptions and establishes that Young is definitely not a heretic in their eyes, but much of the doctrinal language of The Shack continues in Cross Roads, though I phrase it that way because this is often a war of words, not theology.

The critics are waiting in the wings for enough information about the book to leak out so they might launch their attack without actually buying a copy, particulars I’m not going to oblige them with here. Frankly, I’m drawn to Young’s picture of a loving God — regardless of the size, shape, age or gender in which he prefers to clothe any member of The Trinity — and would have no problem approving him to teach Sunday School at my church, a proposition that no doubt causes his detractors to shudder.

At the end of the day Cross Roads is a work of fiction, with a very contrived premise or two, but no more extreme than James Rubart’s Soul’s Gate which we reviewed here a few days back. It is well-written, technically accurate, and resolves plot loose ends.  It’s a book about life, and how some people live it, and what is left when life suddenly ends. It contains various aspects of the gospel, and isn’t afraid to wade into doctrinal issues that concern us as ‘church people.’

Nonetheless, I would say about this book what I said about Shack, and that is its greatest value is in giving the book to spiritual outsiders for the purpose of starting conversations; it’s not the last word on systematic theology.

The medical element of the book does not weigh it down; in fact the book is very lighthearted in a couple of places, including one scene that can only be described as comedic. The lead character is delineated vividly in the opening chapters; you cannot help but have opinions about Anthony Spencer. The author isn’t afraid to introduce new subplots or complications in the last quarter. Some Biblical passages are alluded to, at other points you get chapter and verse. The work validates that Young is a good writer and certainly deserving of the success which changed his life so dramatically a few years ago.

If you’re one of the eighteen million people who purchased The Shack you don’t need to think twice about also getting a copy of Cross Roads.

Cross Roads is in release worldwide in hardcover ($24.99 US) on the FaithWords imprint of Hachette Book Group. A copy was provided to Thinking Out Loud through Speakeasy, an awesome social media book promotion agency. The term “Sunday School” used above isn’t literal — we don’t have one — I’m referring to leading a Children’s ministry small group.

Learn more: The author discusses the book in this YouTube video.

October 4, 2012

How I Singlehandedly (With God’s Help, of Course) Got a Book Back in Print

Nearly 100 days ago, I began an effort — you could say an obsession — to get Powerlines, a book by Leona Frances Choy about what classic Christian writers and preachers believed about The Holy Spirit returned to print. I figured, if I knew a dozen people who wanted this book in my teeny, tiny corner of the world, there must be other people out there who want it to. I decided not to take “out of print” for an answer.

Dozens of emails later, and amid problems with file conversions, the book is back under the title, The Life Changing Power of The Holy Spirit: Insights From Classic Christian Leaders. The publisher description reads, “The unique interview style of this book puts the views on the Holy Spirit held by great men and women of faith into easy-to-understand segments.”

One of the people waiting for this book is me. I was loaned a copy of it years ago. Today, with books like Francis Chan’s Forgotten God and various Jim Cymbala titles such as Spirit Rising being immensely popular, there seems to be a hunger for people wanting to understand the role of the “third person of the trinity” in their lives. People on both sides of the charismatic debate.

So I’m asking you to trudge down to your local Christian bookstore — you remember those, right? — and order a copy. Tell them the ISBN is 9781600661556 and the retail price is $14.99 US and that it’s available from both Spring Arbor and STL.

I get no commission or kickback from promoting this; but I’m willing to bet that given the right amount of display space, Christian bookstores will see a response to this title. And it was great to be influential in getting a title back to press.

December 27, 2011

So How Would You Respond?

First, someone who subscribes to some faith-focused view of things decided that this was an appropriate response to atheism:

But then, as often happens in these situations, someone subscribing to atheism decided to fire back across the bow with this:

At this, the majority of Christ-following blog readers here are expected to be offended.  However, for some reason, I’m not.  I rather like the rather quaint way of putting the story because it highlights that this is indeed a story of “foolish things that confound the wise.”

Cosmic?  Yes, in the sense of ‘out of this world.’  In fact, I would think it very important to begin the story with the premise that the intersection of God and mankind is very much the intersection of different dimensions.

Jewish?  Yes.  Christianity is birthed out of and is very much the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham, even the promise given to Adam.

Zombie?  Well, that’s a little extreme, but it fits.  Personally, I always viewed Zombie-ism as a kinda a lifestyle thing, so for me it could describe both Jesus and John the Baptist in their respective wilderness days.

Live forever?  Indeed!  Eternal life starts now.

Eat his flesh?  No self-respecting Christian I know has ever denied that this is a “Top 5” entry in the category, “Hard Sayings of the Gospel.”   But non-Catholics would say the language is figurative inasmuch as we partake of his sufferings on the cross; Catholics would claim a more literal experience of actually eating his flesh.

Telepathically tell him you accept him?  I’d say the person who wrote this has a better understanding of the gospel than the average church-attender, because at least he/she grasps that the centrality of crossing the line of faith has more to do with an act of believing faith than it does with trying to earn acceptance on the basis of helping little old ladies across the street.  Apologies to elderly females reading this.

…As your master?  Again, bullseye!  There are references in the New Testament to Jesus as Savior, but they outnumbered by references to Jesus as Lord by a ratio of 215:1.  Besides, if you’ve bought in to this point — if you’ve gotten past flesh-eating and zombies and telepathy — you probably feel you’re on to something that you’re going to dedicate yourself to, right?  In for a penny, in for a pound.

So he can remove an evil force?  Sorta.  The Apostle Paul acknowledged the ongoing presence of sin and temptation in the life of the Christ-follower.  I’d refine that one to read, “So he can give you the power to conquer an evil force” on the basis of the conviction that he already conquered it.

A rib woman was convinced by a talking snake…?  God created beings with totally free will including the ability to both reject his authority and to reject his love and desire for community with mankind.  But that had to both be tested out, and also be demonstrated for the man and woman to see for themselves.  There might be dozens of ways to do this, but if you’re looking for a good story, you really can’t make this stuff up. In the first chapter of The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey quotes Walter Wink as saying, “If Jesus had never lived, we never would have been able to invent him.”  That’s how I feel about this.

Makes perfect sense?  Depends to whom you’re speaking.  “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” II Cor. 4:4 (NIV) On the other hand, “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. ”  John 1:12 (NLT)

Thanks for reading today.  If you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to spend some time in telepathic communication, and then me and the rib-woman are gonna have some breakfast.

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